The Elbert Files: The Register's 'cheese sandwich'
Friday, February 21, 2014 7:00 AM
I had just walked out of the downtown library when the unmistakable jingle of four-buckle overshoes came up behind me and a familiar voice called out.
“Looks like your old employer is in trouble.”
It was my old friend K.C., and rather than argue with him in the cold, I suggested we grab a coffee. He was short of cash, so I paid.
“What are you talking about?” I asked as we sat down.
“The Register,” he said. “They launched that big new edition with all that content from USA Today. It’s not going to work.”
“What do you mean it won’t work?” I said. “I’ll admit the page design isn’t the best, but ...”
“Isn’t the best,” he interrupted. “All those bright colors make me dizzy. Somebody needs to tell them the ‘80s are over.
“Besides,” he added, “haven’t you always said the future of local newspapers is local news? If that’s true, why do they want to dump 10 pages of national and world news into the local newspaper?”
“Well,” I said, “I guess you could say that they’ve already paid for the content because Gannett owns the Register and USA Today – not to mention 80 or so other dailies around the country. And since they already own the content, why not repurpose it by putting it in their other newspapers?”
“That’s what you said years ago,” he said. “And it might actually have worked when the USA Today brand meant something. Now, it’s just a distraction.”
He had me there. Today, most people get their world and national news from one of three sources: television, where you can dial up your bias of choice (mine is “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”); specialty publications, like The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker or Golf Digest; or from social media – blogs, Twitter and such.
“You’re right,” I said. “Or, I mean, I was. The reason local newspapers exist today is to cover local news and provide a vehicle for local advertising.
“That wasn’t the case 30 or 40 years ago when Gannett was putting together its nationwide newspaper chain and creating USA Today,” I said. “Back then, there was no Internet. Cable TV was in its infancy. People still read local newspapers to find out what was happening in the world. Local newspapers were a cost-effective way for national advertisers to sell cigarettes and toothpaste and stuff like that.”
“That’s another reason the Register’s new strategy won’t work,” K.C. said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Advertising,” he said. “There isn’t any advertising in those USA Today sections.
“It’s true,” K.C. said. “They said there would be 70 more pages of news per week with those new sections, and I’m sure there will be, if you want to read stuff you already know about or don’t care about. But I haven’t seen one advertisement in those sections.”
“Oh,” I said. “That won’t work for long. I imagine by summer they’ll be raising subscription rates again.”
“It will take more than that,” K.C. said. “Remember those TV stations Gannett bought?”
“The Belo stations,” I said, remembering that Gannett had closed on a $2.2 billion deal to buy 20 TV stations in December.
“Before too long, they’re going to have to repay the money they borrowed to buy those stations,” K.C. said. “And when they do, they’ll put their newspapers up for sale.”
“That won’t be pretty,” I said. “They’ve lost their value as a group, so it’s doubtful anyone will want to buy them all. Their only value is to their local communities, but they’ve regionalized a lot of the back-office functions. That means the new local owners will have to re-create a lot of the old business operations.”
“Gary Kirke has a phrase for something like this, when you have something so tangled up it’s hard to break apart,” K.C. said.
“He calls it ‘pulling apart a cheese sandwich.’”
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